Light Without Heat

By Matt Kirkpatrick

March 2012

Reviewed by Joe Aguilar


Our memories fail. They fail by design. Neuroscientist Karim Nader believes that it may not be possible for us to call something back in our minds without physically transforming our recollection of it, each time we recall it. In Matthew Kirkpatrick's debut short-story collection, Light Without Heat, Kirkpatrick explores the shortcomings of memory. He examines the liminal space between the insufficiency of language and our human need to keep on working to sum up the ineffable in words.

"Different Distances," the collection's first story, starts with the conception of the protagonist, described in terse, lyrical, almost impressionistic sentences:

Conceived in a canopy bed in the Waldorf overlooking the wet black street along Central Park at dawn Sunday morning after an exhibition of my father's artwork at the Grace Gallery downtown. Warhol was there. Everything sold. Even the charcoal sketches tucked in Dad's black portfolio. Fabulous. Cocaine piled on silver trays and cases of Dom and Mylar pillow balloons. Best night of their lives.

While the life of the protagonist of "Different Distances" is recalled in meticulous detail, the reader quickly sees that multiple versions of events are presented--what's more, accounts of things contradict each other. The protagonist is:

Born in the backseat of [his] father's Buick.

In the backseat of a taxi stuck in rush hour traffic. Stuck behind an accident. In two feet of snow.

In the backseat of a NJ Transit bus stuck in the Holland Tunnel, three weeks too soon.

In the backseat of [his] father's Merc. Olds. Cutlass.

As vivid as the memories seem to be, they are also incongruous, full of holes. Even the sentences themselves have gaps in them. The sentences often lack subjects or objects. Sentences end abruptly. Sentences may not be contained by punctuation. Still, the protagonist must strive to gather the fragments of what he remembers, and his struggle redeems him;  at the end of the story, the protagonist joins his parents in a moment of complicated joy, as they "cradle thick glass shards... Gather the pieces and cut [their] fingers, laughing."

"Crystal Castles" retells the famous 1987 rescue of baby Jessica McClure from her near-fatal plunge into a well in Midland, Texas. The story's central characters are Baby Jessica and a mole living inside the well. Both suffer from amnesia: Baby Jessica has recently had an electric shock damage her memory, and the mole wakes up every morning having forgotten what happened the day before. When Baby Jessica falls down the well, she meets the mole, and the two new friends spend "forty hours…creweling and cooking and eating and forgetting and playing Crystal Castles together" before Baby Jessica is pulled out of the well by rescuers. In the end, neither mole nor child remembers the encounter. The story cuts off mid-sentence, with a gap of white space: "the Mole will look up, light shining into the well, and imagine for a moment the glimpse of". The story is divided into two columns of text; the first column gives Baby Jessica's point of view and the second column has the mole's point of view. Like Nicholas Branch in DeLillo's Libra, the reader of "Crystal Castles" has to work to put together a cohesive narrative using fragments of text from unreliable sources, a narrative that is itself set against a historical account. The story's intertextuality, its plurality of truths, is reminiscent of what Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction," fiction that self-consciously questions the border between history and fiction. In "Crystal Castles," history, like memory, is an indistinct space, dependent on narrative for meaning.

Like many innovative fiction writers working from where Sterne and Diderot left off, Kirkpatrick enjoys play.  He experiments with combinations of text, symbol, codes, and images, lightheartedly calling attention to language itself, to the devices used to construct the illusion of narrative. "Pineal Gland," for example, is a pictorial diagram of the brain, the various areas of which are labeled with captions like "Current Interest in Pirates" and "Taste for Cough Syrup" and "Smell of Pledge." The story illustrates the simple truth of mnemonic devices; the brain prefers precise and vivid bits of data to abstractions. To see the human mind's taste for the ultra-specific mapped out like this is oddly touching. We recognize this weird clutter of cravings and secrets and tics and dislikes because it is our own, it's the only way we know how to remember.

The final story, "Some Kirkpatricks," nicely bookends the collection: While "Different Distances" starts with conception, "Some Kirkpatricks" closes with a long series of deaths; while "Different Distances" starts with a nuclear family, "Some Kirkpatricks" closes with an extended family. We learn about the demises of various Kirkpatricks, with photographs of these Kirkpatricks' tombstones used as guiding points for each mini-narrative. Kirkpatrick's range is on display in "Some Kirkpatricks": We see his humor; his meticulous research; his interrogation of the nature of memory; his interest in pastiche and collage; his curiosity toward the natural world; his attention to how the corporate informs the individual; his inexhaustible well of ideas.

While Light Without Heat delights in the high-concept story and does not hesitate to challenge the reader intellectually, Kirkpatrick doesn't lose sight of the thinker thinking the thought, the rememberer remembering. These are moving stories, as funny as they are sad, as full of death as they are of love.